Last month the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new report, Working to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases. It is the WHO’s first comprehensive report on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), a group of debilitating infections that affect the poorest of the poor. Historically, NTDs have not received as much attention as other infectious diseases because they do not cause as many deaths. However, they cause a significant amount of suffering. NTDs disfigure and disable approximately one billion people worldwide, the vast majority in developing countries. They can cause anemia, skin lesions, epilepsy, and blindness. But NTDs are not as neglected as they once were.
“Never before have tropical diseases been so appreciated by U.S. federal policymakers as being central and critical for purposes of not only health but also for sustainable poverty reduction in the world’s low- and middle-income countries,” wrote Dr. Peter Hotez in a message to American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) members. Hotez, a long-time advocate for research on NTDs, was named President of the ASTMH last week. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) began its NTD Program in 2006 and funding has increased every year since. The program promotes integrated treatment for seven NTDs for which cheap, effective medication is already available. Pharmaceutical companies have donated billions of treatment courses and several recently announced further donation increases.
For other NTDs, new prevention and treatment options are needed. Multilateral and non-governmental organizations are investing in research to develop new vaccines, medications, and preventive interventions. Two examples are the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR, co-sponsored by several United Nations organizations and The World Bank), which is supporting the development of new vector control methodologies to protect against Chagas disease and dengue fever, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is funding research to develop a hookworm vaccine. The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, founded in 2003, is a non-profit drug development organization that collaborates with public and private partners to develop and improve medications for NTDs.
There has been a “paradigm shift,” as WHO calls it, in the approach towards NTDs in recent years. Existing programs have been expanded and new ones initiated; many have had great success improving the health of the most impoverished. But it is not yet time to remove the “neglected” from NTDs. The goal for many NTDs is elimination, a target that will take years of concerted effort even in cases where effective tools exist. For other diseases, innovations in prevention and treatment are urgently needed. The recent mobilization of the global health community around NTDs needs to be maintained to make NTDs a thing of the past.
To learn more about the integration of NTD treatment programs, read Overcoming Neglected Tropical Diseases with Cost-Effective, Integrated Programs.